Cleopatra - The Ballet from Les Miserables’ composer

March 27, 2012

Had this two-disc set been listed as the music of an unknown John Smith or Bob Jones, I wouldn’t have asked for a copy to review for the readers of Theater Shelf. Ballet scores aren’t usually thought of as theater pieces, but rather as classical music compositions which support storytelling through dance and design.

But the composer here is so well known to the theatrical world, and his output already occupies such a significant part of many theater lovers’ theater shelves, that it seemed like a good idea to check it out.

The composer is Claude-Michel Schönberg. His music graces our shelves in recordings of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. The more compulsive of us also include his Martin Guerre, La révolution Française and The Pirate Queen on our shelves.

He gave us “I Dreamed a Dream,” “One Day More,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” “The Movie In My Mind,” “Sun and Moon,” The Last Night of the World” and “Live With Someone You Love.”

Those were wonderful theater songs, taking the concept of a “show tune” and elevating it in emotional capacity to the level that proponents of Grand Opera often think of as the exclusive realm of that art form, matching lyrics to soaring melodies and distinctive rhythms.

So what do you find when you get a full two acts of his music without lyrics?

You get a score that is consistently pretty and often dramatically demanding. It demands your attention not just to the melody that is playing out, but to the structure of the rhythms that establish the pace for a choreographer and the dancers to follow. It is a ballet, after all, and a ballet must tell much of its story in the tempos the dancers obey.

Ballet is also about massed movement and the spatial relationships of the characters on stage. The often simple plot – simple because it needs to be communicated without words – is heavy on primary concepts and emotions which dance can carry much more effectively than convoluted plot points.

In this case, as in many famous ballets, the plot follows a story already well known so the creators can concentrate on emotions. It is the story of Cleopatra and her relationships with first her brother Ptolemy who wouldn’t share the throne with her, then with Caesar, who takes her to Rome, and finally with Mark Anthony who sacrifices all for her.

On an audio-only recording, the visual half of the whole is missing. 

This is when a well-designed, well written and fully illustrated accompanying booklet becomes important. The booklet for this release meets the minimum requirements but more information would be helpful. The package contains no notes explaining the origin of the project or the history of the collaboration between composer and choreographer. Such a note would have been welcomed given that the work is listed as Claude-Michel Schönberg & David Nixon’s Cleopatra, The Ballet. David Nixon? The booklet tells you he choreographed and co-directed the ballet but you need a Google search to determine that he is the Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet, the touring company based in Leeds in the north of England that commissioned the piece and which toured it throughout England last year.

The booklet does include nearly a dozen beautifully executed color photos. Seven of them, those by Bill Cooper, a former ballet dancer who specializes in production shots, give you a feel for the visual nature of the performance – set, costumes, lighting – and a hint of the sense of formality in the choreography and performance style. The other four are by Jason Tozer who captures the athleticism and extraordinary muscular control of Martha Leebolt who danced the title role and Tobias Batley who was her “Mark Antony” in the world premiere of the piece.

A very helpful synopsis in the booklet provides a description of each scene so, if you read along as you listen with care, you can conjure in your mind’s eye the events of Cleopatra’s short life.

For some of those scenes, the music clearly depicts the events called for in the plot. In the “Banquet for Mark Anthony” with its steady rhythm, lilting melody and percussion (tamborines, anyone?) you can picture the dancers providing entertainment for the guests. It takes nothing more than the title of the scene and the music itself to evoke an appreciation of its function in the story. In other scenes, the relationship must be established through the portion of the work that isn’t on the discs. I doubt that many listeners would take the music in “Assassination of Ptolemy” to be the musicalization of a murder. It is the work of the choreographer and his dancers that make whatever connection the audience grasps.

Schönberg composed the score and collaborated in the orchestrations with John Longstaff of the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra. John Pryce-Jones, former Music Director of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, conducts thirty-four players of the Northern Ballet Sinfonia on this recording.

Schönberg’s Cleopatra won’t necessarily put you in mind of his major musicals. At times,  the music is much more sedate than in his musical plays and the format of a full-length dance piece gives him the luxury of taking his time developing musical ideas. Where specific songs in Les Misérables or Miss Saigon must deliver their message on the wings of a melody that blends with the lyrics, specific scenes in the ballet rely on the score more for atmosphere and mood while movement by the dancers places them into the context of the story.

Melodies here tend to be long lined and tie multiple scenes to each other, almost as if the structure of a song with lyrics forced Schönberg to concentrate melodic beauty while composing for a dance freed him to expand his musical ideas. As a result, his songs approach an exquisiteness which is absent from instrumental work such as the ballets Cleopatra or his earlier Wuthering Heights. Thus, don’t expect to hear a piece sounding like an overture or an instrumental adaptation of a song-laden score.

But this ballet isn’t another Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky or Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev either. The music is clearly Schönberg, even if not as richly beautiful as the lyric-driven Schönberg. It offers a pleasant listen on its own and it is clear that it offered a structure to choreographer Nixon to create a full-length ballet. It would be interesting to be able to see just what he came up with to match Schönberg’s music.

Performed by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia
Two discs totaling 1:24 over 27 tracks
Booklet with photos and synopsis
First Night Records catalog ENCORECD14
US Price $34.85